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How (and why) to surf the web in secret

Brad Chacos | Nov. 8, 2012
They say no one can hear you scream in space, but if you so much as whisper on the Web, you can be tracked by a dozen different organizations and recorded for posterity. Simply visiting a website can allow its operators to figure out your general physical location, identify details about your device information, and install advertising cookies that can track your movements around the web. (Don't believe me? Check this out.)

Finally, this probably doesn't need to be said, but if you log into a website using a username/password combination, the website administrators can track you regardless of whether you're using an anonymizer service. If you need to log in to a website to tap into its full features, see if BugMeNot has a generic login available for the site.

Got it? Good! Let's dig into the various anonymizing tools at your disposal.

Web proxies

The most basic way to surf websites anonymously is by using web-based proxies like Proxify, Anonymouse or Hide My Ass. Web proxies are simple and easy to use: Just head to the anonymizing website, type in the URL of the website you want to visit anonymously, and you're off! Some even include advanced features like the ability to encrypt your connection or block ads, cookies, and JavaScript.

Web proxies may be straightforward (and often free), but they have several drawbacks. Data speeds can be atrocious, certain types of content (videos, music, etc.) may be difficult to access, many proxy services interject their own advertising, and some websites simply won't work through a proxy.

Also, while free web proxies are a dime a dozen and new ones pop up on an almost hourly basis, it's difficult to tell which ones are honeypots set up by bad guys hoping to sneak a peek at your personal information as you share it through their proxy server. In other words, you shouldn't do your online banking or log into a password-protected website when you're using a web proxyespecially if the connection isn't encrypted vita HTTP Secure (denoted by an https:// prefix in your browser's address bar).

The three web proxies identified above are long-standing and well-trusted, however, and each offers a paid subscriber service that nixes the speed and content complaints. Proxy.org and PublicProxyServers.com also maintain extensive, frequently updated lists of web proxies.

Manual proxy servers

Some proxy servers don't have a simple website interface, but still allow you to utilize their service for anonymous browsing. You just need to manually configure your browser to connect to the proxy's IP address. As with web-based proxies, you'll want to shy away from revealing sensitive information or passwords with a proxy server.

Hide My Ass and ProxyNova keep two of the best lists of active proxy servers, with each individual proxy's speed, uptime, country of origin and level of anonymity clearly identified. (You want an anonymous or high anonymous proxy server, of course.)

Once you've picked a proxy server, you'll need to configure your browser to connect to it, a simple procedure that's slightly different depending on your browser. Here's how to do it on the big three:

 

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